Aug 072011

Illustration by Frank Fiorentino


My Owls

Essay by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

In the stories I’ve been writing lately, all set in and around my neighbourhood, a great many animals have arrived as if in the Eden of my mind, they are a necessity. They are not always kindly creatures. And they are there in the created neighbourhood of my stories even when they are not necessarily in my actual neighbourhood. And even when they are something like the animals that can be found in my actual neighbourhood, they are certainly not real in the way they enter the space of the stories, which can be both violent and inexplicable.

Yet, there are animals in my neighbourhood.

Over the May 24th weekend — a sacred Canadian long weekend — a Screech Owl was spotted in a Linden tree on my street.

It was neighbour # 82 who noticed the owl in his front yard tree and told me about it — actually, stupidly showed me the owl in his tree. He can be forgiven, as he did not know what havoc my imagination would play with this knowledge. The story should start here but this was, in fact, the second central problem, now I see, in retrospect.

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Aug 032011


Line Up

Tahrir Square, August 2011

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian

Since the last time I wrote about Egypt after the Revolution, just a month ago, the atmosphere has changed. The military police are back in Tahrir Square after several recent protests became violent. Tanks have once again been deployed. And in the side streets, vans and more police sit, at the ready. It’s Ramadan, and according to local newspapers, “this year it will be more political than previous ones.”

Today, August 3, history is being made. Today Hosni Mubarak has been flown in from Sharm el Sheikh. His trial is set to begin. Today, armed with my camera and accompanied by my driver and my husband, I went to Tahrir Square. In addition to the police, we found others there, like us, gathering, waiting. Wondering what is to be.


Bridge over the Nile at dawn


On our way with Mohammed

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Aug 022011


The DOW is down 266 points today; America waits for the consumer to spend money so we can get out of the current crisis; the consumer won’t spend money because the debt ceiling deal promises more uncertainty about pensions, medical insurance, and jobs; it’s a merry-go-round spiraling down; and the ancient gods appear as cartoon musclemen in 3D instead of guardians and saviours. In these David Helwig poems, Lady Godiva has joined the Tea Party to protest paying taxes and money distracts us from infinities. There is, perhaps, nothing to do but write comic poems about the current situation, Post-Empire poems, in the current NC jargon of the day. These poems are taken from a 47-page long poem or group of poems called “Seawrack.” David Helwig, as most of you know, is an old friend; he looks like an amiable Old Testament prophet in his author photo. He is an amazingly prolific author of poems, stories, novels and memoir. His book of mystery stories called, appropriately, Mystery Stories, came out last fall. Oberon Press is publishing a novella called Killing McGee this fall (the main character is obsessed with—among many things—the 1868 assassination of  Darcy McGee). And Biblioasis will publish in 2012 a collection of David’s translations of Chekhov stories, one of which appeared on Numéro Cinq last year.



From “Seawrack”

Poems by David Helwig


All men are mortal: this
the philosopher’s first premise.

And second, Socrates is a man.

Outside our bedroom, night rain
comes down, chill, polyrhythmic.


In each ear tickety percussion distracts
us from infinities. Once discovered
a pretty frisson bedecks the edge of use. The muse
tickles herself with feather dusters, lust
whiffling its stroke to court her smallnesses.
Catch trifles sidewise to consequence;
a premise means only its brisk shape.

Is it bearable to the hurt ones,
our sheen of sensation? A blue garden
tinctures the periphery. Skywise
space hollows itself for events. Old pal,
you looked so very brisk that night
when sweet baby came home with a dog
trained to sniff out the truth of flowers.

Seven is chosen the absolute number
for measuring beauty. Listen closely, my clever ones,
your by-names will not be forgotten. Though taste
of cake grow bitter as myrrh and musk,
your sandals shine  deliberate and gold.
And nothing is forsworn, beauty
becomes itself by being nothing else.



The slap of a screen door closing
in nineteen forty-something,

hot August, flies in their hundreds.

Drifts of goldenrod, seasonal, prophetic,
grow tall here in the changing light.


Who was a child
in time’s elisions,
summer, the prime
element sand.

That was. That.
Doorslap. Voices
from unceilinged bed-
room to bedroom.

The thrill, to hook
a cold bright living fish.
Always the secrets.
That. Flies beyond count.

Time’s elisions:
unseen, unheard
some great wheel
turns the sky.



Scrubbing garlic at sunset,
in a bucket of mud-red water,

fat bulbs shedding earth.

Take to the road, night traveller,
maybe never to come back.


Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
all barefoot through the mud-mush,

around them holy universe a-twirling,
buddy on the old railroad beating time;
they dandled Eve’s sweet apples,

mud-red to the knee as they sang hymns
about the attainable tough-ass farms
with mortgage documents long as bibles.

I’ll feed you spicy buds with sticky fingers
the Little Mouse lined it out
that fox-tailed whistle tune in quavers.

Felicity stood waving on the tracks,
baked seven moon-pies for buddy on the railroad,
and mud was ever with them.

Once we knew a song, and how it told the story,
Little Mouse and Felicity setting out
and coming home with their new hymns

that run downhill like water.



That season here again,
bees scour late-flowering thyme,

sun in retreat, still hot, still bright.

On the porch an open book
exposits biological enigmas


Ha. Ha. Ha. Sudden glory,
writes the son of the angry vicar;
a salutary warning against democracy.
Nota bene: the pope farts like all men,
matter in motion. The king instructed
in mathematics can measure
his royal enormity. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. The clown howls
for his dildo-diddle-darling,
waves a mute stuffed penis
at the delighted crowd.
The honeybee queen mates
with her drone at the top of the sky,
rips off his parts. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Ha. Ha. Ha. Long-leggedy
dancers fall to the ground,
subjected. Fat boys in drag
achieve transfiguration,
matter in motion. King Flea
sucks blood in the bush
of the loveliest. Ha. Ha. Ha.



Shorebirds unmoving
like rock, sand, shell; invisible
here now or long gone.



In accord with one accurate word,
or a permission from the high mind
that watches intently the idea
of ourselves joining it here

in proportion, in right proportion
recorded in books bound in calf
shelved in dark lengths
of present time; clock clicks onward.

Beyond the window, the pale daffodil
sky darkens to green, violet, and offers
its blackness for stars as it must
at such a becoming moment.

Within, what has achieved persistence
the abiding-with, what was, is,
what will be the event of quiet mind
in accordance, in order, in this room.



The crickets silent,
frozen to death or hidden
in somewhere somehow.


The cold mood, canine:
a punctuated screech
from monkey mind
distracts it; meanwhile

the flirt and wimble
of the so fleshly
Miss Concinnity dis-
roots all deepness.

Hocus-pocus, the dog-
latin creed broods
over the winsome drumming
of the theologian’s heels.

Bob the urgent surgeon
redesigns the ductwork.
The joker, brindled,
pink, lies standing up.



Wet snow, a north wind,
the poet’s occupation—
reading all weathers.


Lady Godiva, doubly bareback blonde
waves her scrawled sign,
and the citizens keep house

bar Tom the poet, who word-
struck, avid for inklings,
peeps her from toe to temple, bush
silvery, crinkled, lichenous.

Asked for opera, give them the works,
everyness of tricks and trades,
of which, of whom on all the notes,
dancing dogs and the climactic squillo.

A  sad tale’s best for winter.
Lock the doors with the universal key.
NO ADMITTANCE. The forbidden
matches the perfectly desired.

Lay out the tale of Hansel and G.
or Caesar mounting the throne of Egypt
as Jack the neighbour spills the beans
on a mutant township of titans.

Hopping on one foot, gump, gump, gump,
prevents an easy slenderness, while grace
goes toothless and badly bald. Sharp,
the surgeon’s foresight tunes the interlock.



Recall that bedroom,
the stove pipes from the kitchen
cold in the mornings.


The cuckoo-clocks hoot all night
in that tallest of landscapes.
The accidental virgin carries
a clutch of red morning flowers
out of the Schwarzwald.

Beyond the far-sighted, mountains
where birds and animals master
six available languages;
those who arrive achieve
the unlikeliest of wisdoms.

Wotan and the Seven Dwarfs
audition for Hollywood
up on the crags as Windy and Sol
run bounding arpeggios
on lengths of natural horn.

Those who can, do; those
who can’t, sing opera—
the second law of the brothers Grimm.
Each goddess must proclaim herself
free to die of her own disease.

Beyond the white mountains
the cuckoo-clocks gossip hourly
about the private life of demons,
and a translated avian soprano
hangs caged in each hot kitchen.



Socrates is mortal: QED.
The concepts dance like numbers.

Philosophers tell lies about desire

and the wisdom of hairless boys:
to prove the obvious.


In each eye the texture of pelt distracts
us from infinities. The spooks gabble
their old malarkey, wholesaling thrills. The muse
pleases herself with foxtails, fingertips; a humming
electrifies the dapper suit of epidermis.
Exit: he goes out. Wash dark things white.
A conclusion reveals only its own perfection.

Is it still bearable to the lost ones,
our aching gladness? A blue garden
awaits us, spans our path, felicities
of petal, air, twilight. Old dog,
you chewed the bones of so many good things,
after sweet baby showed us her tattooing
all in the language of spice and ecstasis.

Seven is the absolute number
for measuring it all. Listen, my pretty ones,
while I recite the four lovely imperfections. Though truth
grow bitter as the crimsoned and demented,
your toenails will preserve the gloss of silver.
Whatever is forsworn, foregone, beauty
becomes itself still, clamant, ubiquitous.

—David Helwig

Aug 022011


Here are new poems from Melinda Thomsen, a freshly minted MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, but already dazzling and prolific. Melinda Thomsen’s poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Alimentum, Heliotrope, and The Same.  Anthologies include Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews and Spring from Gatehouse Press, Great Britain. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Naming Rights in June 2008. These poems are from her next collection, Field Rations, to be published in October 2011.



From Field Rations

Poems by Melinda Thomsen



Suppertime, December 28, 1944


Every night his mind ticked on
at 1:00 AM while she was fixing supper.
Was it like last time? Biscuits, fried chicken

and bean salad they saved from noon.
She’s sculling water through some peas.
He felt cool air running around his hands

and his stomach pressed against the sink.
Movements of her fingers echoed in his.
His tongue moved around on its own

but what was it saying? His hand drifted
up her leg and across her back, over
and over like the touch of butterflies

that seemed to land on her shoulders.
He was kissing her when the pulsing caress
of her lips answered his, was she there?

Was she stopping to close her eyes?

Read the rest of this entry

Aug 012011

Photo credit: Kate O’Rourke

Here’s a timely (always timely) essay (exhortation) on the art of reviewing from Michael Bryson who has already contributed mightily to these pages (see his stories “Niagara” and “My Life in Television“). Taking Pauline Kael (the late, great New Yorker movie critic) and Susan Sontag (the late, great novelist, memoirist and critic) as his models, he makes a case for articulate, argumentative, critical criticism, the cut and thrust of literary debate, and the healthy expression of superior literary taste (READ: criticism as demolition) as a corrective to the marketplace. For several years Michael edited the magazine The Danforth Review, a lively, inventive online short story journal that went into mothballs in 2009. He is restarting the magazine this fall, getting ready to take submissions (see full bio and details below the post).



Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition?

By Michael Bryson

For years I’ve wanted to write an essay about criticism: what is good criticism, what is poor criticism, what frustrates me about criticism, what makes me go, yes, yes, yes.

Increasingly I suspect this essay will never get written.

My mind is unsettled. Sometimes I want critics to be harsher: stop waffling! Sometimes I want critics to be more judicious: stop rushing towards unfounded conclusions! Sometimes I abhor mis-readings; sometimes I’m pleased to be shown an unexpected side of a work. Sometimes I’m keen to read a gender-based analysis; sometimes I just can’t take any more; enough already.

Yes, I’m finicky. I’m not the ideal, consistent reader. I don’t have a still point upon which to ground direction to others about how criticism ought to be done.

As I’ve said before, I write reviews. In my reviews I engage the work; I try to provide evidence-based analysis; I try to recognize that interpretation is dialogic (it’s part of a larger give-and-take process). Reviews need to be able to stand alone, be a unit of communication, transmitting meaning.

But I don’t believe in still point truths, or monologues. But, then, sometimes I do. Every once in a blue moon I enjoy a good polemic blasting.

Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004), a brilliant compare-and-contrast essay on the work of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, has returned me to my unsettled thoughts about criticism.

T.S. Eliot said: “Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow.”

Seligman could be paraphrased: Between provocation and judiciousness lies the graveyard of failed criticism.

Okay, the parallelism is rough. Here’s some real Seligman:

You can’t be a great critic–you can’t even be an interesting critic– without a talent for provocation. An imp of the perverse perches on the shoulder of the critic as she formulates her sentences, a still, small voice will warn her, “Caution! A statement like that is bound to land you in hot water!” And if she’s a genuine critic, her imp will throttle that voice. The aim is to make people think; the means is, much of the time, to make them mad. Judiciousness may be central to all criticism, but judiciousness without provocation of some kind is like nutrition without flavour. Who cares if a boiled turnip is good for you? Through angry responses to something you’ve written can be unpleasant, they’re not nearly so demoralizing as no response. At least they’re evidence–sometimes the only evidence–that the audience has listened (95-6).

Argument is how we learn; argument is how we think (166).

Ninety percent of everything, as Theodore Sturgeon observed, is shit; in criticism, the percentage must be ninety-nine (167).

[Adler] just can’t stand [Kael]. And that’s where criticism begins. Call it sensibility or call it taste, we embrace what we love and trash what we loathe; but the response–the recoil–comes first. In articulating her loathing, Adler gives me a better handle on my love. That makes her a real critic (168).

[Kael] and Sontag were magnificently uncompromised, but their work isn’t bursting with “sympathy and understanding.” Those who can have a moral obligation toward those who can’t, the obligation that Henry James articulated so beautifully when he counseled, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” But criticism–unfortunately for the criticized–isn’t human life. Notwithstanding their many enthusiasms and their palpable delight in praising, Sontag and Kael don’t deserve any rewards for kindness. And that’s as it should be. Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith (186-7).

We’ve all read hatchet jobs by critics who are scandalously inferior to the artists they’re judging. … I’m talking about geniuses, though, not nitwits, and geniuses, almost necessarily, are monsters. There’s something monstrous in the titanic will it takes to produce a world-class oeuvre, not to mention the coldness it takes to pronounce somebody else’s work wanting (187).

Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one’s time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic’s responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag’s phrase, “mercantile values,” somebody has to say no (188).

It’s a measure of [Kael's and Sontag's] greatness that what we take away from their work isn’t the no but the yes. They fret, they recoil, they prophesy–but their enthusiasms sweep them away. No one can write great criticism without bringing so much passion to the task that she risks making a fool of herself (189).

Passion. Provocation. Demolition. Titanic wills and monstrous somethings. Argument is how we learn, how we think. The bottom line: how to be a great critic.

Seligman doesn’t waffle. He’s not finicky.

He clearly loves his two subjects, but he rages frequently at Sontag and finds numerous occasions to wish Kael had written something different, something better.

Here’s more Seligman:

I hope you don’t think that because I’m crazy about her writing I bought all of her opinions. “Infallible taste is inconceivable,” she wrote; “what could it be measured against?” If Sontag’s taste seems less controversial, surely that’s because she’s allotted most of her criticism to Olympian work. This determination to play the admirer is what, in her view, justifies her claiming she’s not a critic: “I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious.” So do I, but her distaste for that side of the job doesn’t free her from the mantle of criticism; it just makes her a critic who doesn’t do half her job. … For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates (187-8).

I savoured this book. I didn’t want it to end. I wish I could say one of my well-read friends recommended it to me, but the truth is, I picked it up off a used book table at a sale my employer was having to raise funds for charity.

Chance, in other words, introduced me to Seligman (and a Google search has pointed me–grateful–to more of his work). Kael and Sontag, of course, I was somewhat familiar with. My bookshelf includes Kael’s collected movie columns, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies (1996), and Sontag’s canonical Against Interpretation (1966) and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).

Here’s part of the entry of December 19, 1948, the year Sontag turned 15:

There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few:

The Counterfeiters – Gide
The Immortalist – Gide
Laccadio’s Adventures – Gide
Corydon – Gide
Tar – Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within – Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Ester Waters – George Moore
Diary of a Writer – Dostoyevsky
Against the Gran – Huysmans
The Disciple – Paul Bourget
Sanin – Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trombo
The Forsyte Saga – Galsworthy
The Egoist – George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways – George Meridith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel – George Meridith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heinie, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman… [This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]

… Poetry must be: exact, intense, concrete, significant, rhythmical, formal, complex

… Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence …

… Language is not only an instrument but an end in itself …

Kael is not so easily quoted. Let’s just note that her selected/collected weighs in at 1291 pages.

Both of these women, Seligman notes, were lightning rods for adversaries. Both also became major critics before the late-1960s expansion of feminism.

Titanic wills? Here’s the quotation chosen for the back cover of Reborn: “I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!”

Nothing was going to hold Sontag back, and nothing did. What Seligman finds in her criticism, however, are swells of contradiction and intense sophistication to both hide and reveal herself. She was gay, but for a long time didn’t say so. She identified with the North Vietnamese, but then broke with the ideological left in the 1980s.

On February 6, 1982, Sontag gave a speech at a Town Hall in Manhattan at what was supposed to be an evening of left-wing solidarity. She said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who ready only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Over boos and catcalls, she neared the end of her speech:

Communism is fascism–successful fascism, if you will. … I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Uproar. Accusations of betrayal. Surprise from Sontag that the reaction was so vocal.

Seligman uses the example to reinforce that this is what great critics do; they get our attention and make us think. He asks:

Would Sontag’s detractors have been happier if she’d gazed with fiery eyes into the crowd of the Town Hall and declared, ‘Communism resembles fascism’? Oh, God, some of them probably would have. But Sontag has too much pride in her craft to let her language turn into mush (95).

A similar example from Kael, from a 1992 interview with The Oxford American:

OA: I’ve heard a few people say that they have stopped reading you because you have made them feel stupid at times for liking something they shouldn’t. Have you ever–

Kael: Tough (140).

Yes, tough. Good answer. But what I didn’t find in Seligman was a way to separate the geniuses from the nitwits.

If the geniuses are “monstrous,” what are the nitwits? Evil?

If 99% of criticism is shit, what are 99% of critics? Pigs?

And what of the process of reviewing, criticizing, and dialoguing? What of give-and-take? What of that thing superficially called the literary community?

If demolition is “probably the primary critical task,” what of community building? And how much weight should be give that “probably”?

The further I get from the book, the more my finickiness returns.

Yes, demolition is a legitimate PART of the critical process, but the primary task? Isn’t the primary task to know thyself and to be aware of your own biases? And to present a strong (not mushy!) argument (evience-based) that acknowledges the biases? And always, I’ll say it again, to acknowledge that argument is dialogic? That no single argument can dominate and end the debate?

In December 2010, the New York Times ran a series on “Why Criticism Matters.”

The Times introduced the series as follows:

We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.

 But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)? Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?

At the time, I started to make notes to provide my own response to this series, but I couldn’t complete it. My wife, then, was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. While thinking through questions about literature is part of what sustains me (I have my own titanic will and youthful journals, though they’re nowhere near as intense as Sontag’s), my life-energy was needed elsewhere.

Life/art: it’s a separation rife with unintended consequences.

Anger, Seligman notes, can be a source of great criticism. I distrust my anger. I have written out of anger and later regretted it, though even in reflection I usually think my impulse was true. And the result, pace Seligman, if often more interesting.

I was angry at the Times series. It didn’t go deep enough, I thought. It didn’t provide me with what I felt I needed out of it. Which was what, exactly? I can’t recreate that now. I was in a unique situation then, one what swelled with fear and an intense need to live simply one day at a time.

The situation reinforced my natural impatience for stupidity.

I wanted to write an essay: “Why I hate social media.” But I don’t hate social media. I hate that people post banalities. I don’t care that you’ve just crossed the street, brushed your teeth, or are meeting your friends at the art gallery.

I’m okay with receiving links to YouTube videos, sharing one of your favourite songs from the 1990s, but, please, not twenty times a day.

What I wish more people did, is write reviews, write commentary, write analysis. Don’t just send witticisms about Toronto’s Ford brothers (yes, you’re clever; and Atwood may well make a good mayor), provide argument.

Argument, as Seligman says, is how we learn. Argument is thought.

Go deeper. Compare and contrast. Risk being wrong. Risk contradicting yourself. Risk offending someone.

Risk alienating your friends.

It will make you more interesting.

Please. Please. Pretty please.

Thank you.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. It’s a book about, well, angels and shit. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. In fall, 2011 TDR will once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club. He has new fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly (Fall 2011) and new fiction (“The Places You’ll Go”) recently online at Urban Graffiti. He co-parents a daughter and a son. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months ago. She has survived the disease, the treatment, and a lot else besides.